Barbies might “just” be toys, but Barbie™ is an impossibly perfect paragon of glamorous femininity who’s had as many specialized professions over the course of her 64-year-long existence as she has bespoke outfits. There are few pieces of corporate-owned IP that are truly as Iconic (in the pre-social media sense of the word) as the doll that put Mattel on the map and taught children of all genders — but especially little girls — to long for hot pink dreamhouses. That’s why it isn’t all that surprising to see Mattel Studio’s brand protection-minded influence splashed all over Warner Bros.’ new live-action Barbie movie from writer / director Greta Gerwig.
Valuable as the Barbie brand is, it makes all the sense in the world that Mattel would want Gerwig’s feature — a playful, surreal adventure that does double duty as a deconstruction of its namesake and her technicolor, dreamlike world — to play by a set of rules meant to protect their investments. But as well meant as Mattel’s input presumably was, Gerwig clearly came with a bold vision built around the idea of deconstructing some of the more complex realities of what Barbie represents in order to tell a truly modern, feminist story.
Watching the movie, you can often feel how Mattel and Gerwig’s plans for Barbie weren’t necessarily in sync and how those differences led to compromises being made. Thankfully, that doesn’t keep the movie from being fun. But it does make it rather hard to get lost in the fantasy of it all — especially once Barbie starts going meta to poke fun at the studios behind it in a way that seems to be becoming more common.
Along with celebrating innumerable pieces of Mattel’s history, Barbie tells the story of how the most Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) in all of Barbie Land gains the tiniest bit of self-awareness one day and starts to find her growing sense of complex personhood so alarming that she sets off for the Real World to find out what the hell is going on. Like the vast majority of Barbies who call Barbie Land home, all Stereotypical Barbie knows about her own world is based on the picture-perfect, idealized experiences she and her friends are able to breeze their ways through solely using the power of their imaginations.
Things don’t just happen to Barbies. They’re very much the arbiters of their own wills who’ve worked hard to become people like President Barbie (Issa Rae), Dr. Barbie (Hari Nef), Lawyer Barbie (Sharon Rooney), and Pulitzer Prize-winning Writer Barbie (Alexandra Shipp). But life for Barbies also isn’t especially difficult or complicated, partially because they’re all dolls living in a plastic paradise. Mainly, though, it’s because Barbie Land’s an expressly woman-controlled utopia reminiscent of Steven Universe’s Gem Homeworld, where neither misogyny nor the concept of a patriarchy exists because that’s not what Barbie™ is about.
As an unseen Helen Mirren — who seems to be playing a version of herself as Barbie’s narrator — points out who’s who in the film’s opening act, you can see how Mattel’s willingness to let Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s script poke fun at Barbie™ led to some extremely good world-building.
Barbie Land isn’t just a predominantly pink pocket dimension where Life-Size-like dolls live in life-sized, yet still toy-like dream homes. It’s the embodiment of the easy-to-digest, corporate-approved feminism and female empowerment that Mattel and many other toy companies deal in. Only in Barbie Land, the idea of a predominantly female supreme court or construction sites full of nothing but hardworking women aren’t just dreams — they’re a regular part of everyday life. And all the Barbies are better for it because of how it reinforces their belief that they can do anything.
But outside of the Stereotypical Barbie-obsessed Ken whose job is to stand on the beach (Ryan Gosling), none of the other Kens (Simu Liu, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Ncuti Gatwa, Scott Evans, and John Cena) are ever really given personalities to speak of. It’s clearly a purposeful decision meant to reinforce the idea that Ken dolls, which were invented after Barbie dolls, are the Eves to their Adams — accessory-like beings created to be companions rather than their own people. But as solid as the idea is, in practice, it has a way of making the Kens of color feel like thinly-written afterthoughts hovering around Gosling and like Barbie isn’t sure how to utilize its entire cast — a feeling that intensifies more and more as the movie progresses.
Long before Barbie even starts to have her existential crisis and seek guidance from Weird Barbie (Kate McKinnon), it becomes painfully clear that there was a strong desire on either Mattel or Warner Bros. parts for audiences to be spoon-fed as much of the film as possible before actually sitting down in theaters. If you’ve watched even a couple of Barbie’s lengthier ads or the music video for Dua Lipa’s (who plays Mermaid Barbie) “Dance the Night,” you’ve seen a significant chunk of this film and its more memorable moments.
What you’ve seen less of is how often Barbie slows down to have characters repeat jokes and belabor points as if it doesn’t trust the audience to catch beats on their initial deliveries. Some of that can be attributed to the PG-13 movie trying to make sure that viewers of all ages are able to engage because as existentially heavy and slightly flirty as Barbie gets at times, it’s a movie about Barbies, which is obviously going to appeal to a bunch of literal children. But once Barbie’s in the real world being harassed by lascivious men, ruthless teen girls, and a bumbling, evil corporation that the movie goes to great lengths to make fun of, you also get the sense that more than a bit of the movie’s unevenness on the backend stems from Mattel putting its foot down about how it, too, needed to be a part of Barbie’s live-action, theatrical debut.
There’s a time and a place for corporations to try getting in on the fun of events like this by way of meta humor that acknowledges their own existence and the role they play in bringing projects like movies about Barbie dolls into being. But rather than creating the necessary conditions for those kinds of jokes to land, not need explanation, and add substance to Barbie, both Mattel and Warner Bros.’ self-insert jokes work more to remind you how the movie is ultimately a corporate-branded endeavor designed to move products.
That doesn’t keep Gerwig’s latest from being an enjoyable time spotlighting a decidedly inspired performance from Robbie. But it is going to make the rabid Barbie discourse even more exhausting than it already is when the feature hits theaters on July 21st.